ORANGE — There's one unmistakable note in the "new wave" of Irish plays of the past quarter century. It's a trend whose roots can be traced as far back as John Millington Synge: No matter how fervent the political content of the play--and Irish politics are about as fervent as they can get--the author's point is always made through a very personal story.
This was never truer than in Shirley Gee's "Never in My Lifetime" at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre.
The anger at this most unproductive of wars, on the parts of both the Irish Republican characters and the British, are at the boiling point. But Gee's message is brought home profitably and dramatically in the simple story of Tom, a 19-year-old soldier from Yorkshire nearing the end of his service, and 18-year-old Tessie, the girl he meets on the sly in Belfast.
Their love, their stolen moments away from the eyes of zealots on both sides and their ultimate tragedy are not only as eloquent an anti-war statement as can be made but also place in sharp perspective the fact that wars are not the business of those who fight them, but of political opportunists and religious bigots and their ilk.
In treating "Lifetime" as the simple tale it is, director Kamella Tate has done it a great service.
She has staged it inventively on Suzie K. Goff's impressive, detailed, multilayered setting, masterfully lit in David Darwin and Deborah Wissink's design, with a deliberately measured pace that is rarely broken except when the action demands it. Her guidance is illuminated by Daron L. Sorg's fine costume design and a memorable sound design by Craig Brown.
Brick and plaster walls spread out across two sides of the Waltmar stage, splattered with IRA graffiti, from "Brits Wank" to "Nuke the Paddies" to a quite outrageous suggestion for the Queen.
On one side is a raised platform that holds the Belfast sitting room of Tessie's mother (Emily Delk); another platform is the London living room of the wife (Anita Bloom) left behind by Tom's pal Charlie.
These two women, in accomplished monologues, act as the consciences of those who keep the lamps burning for the young who fight. Both actresses deal effectively with difficult speeches addressed to the audience.
Matthew Larsen as Charlie has just the right unthinking dedication to a responsibility that has to be borne while he wears his country's uniform. Elizabeth Maher as Tessie's fiery IRA best friend Maire shows a powerful obsession with her ideals, her affection for Tessie and for survival in a dreadful world.
These performances are uniformly good, but Christina Vecchiato as Tessie and J. Scott Bramble as Tom are even more impressive. Theirs is a light, romantic relationship so typical of any wartime, two young hearts discovering themselves and each other for the first time.
Vecchiato is impeccable in her subtle shadings from the naive teen-ager willing to risk dishonor to the young woman shattered by her fateful decision.
Bramble is one of those natural actors who can pull off the impossible trick of playing innocence and making it look real, of speaking his character's words as if for the first time, as though they had just popped into his head. The fated romance is more touching through the actors' honesty.
* "Never in My Lifetime," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5-$7. (714) 997-6811. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. J. Scott Bramble: Tom
Christina Vecchiato: Tessie
Elizabeth Maher: Maire
Anita Bloom: Wife
Emily Delk: Mother
Matthew Larsen: Charlie
A Chapman University Department of Theatre and Dance production of Shirley Gee's drama. Directed by Kamella Tate. Scenic design: Suzie K. Goff. Costume design: Daron L. Sorg. Lighting design: David Darwin/Deborah Wissink. Sound design: Craig Brown.